Democrats, the debt supercommittee and defense cuts


J. Scott Applewhite AP

Have Democrats let an opportunity slip in the debate over the country’s debt?

In August, when the final debt-ceiling compromise was crafted by the White House and congressional leaders, included in the package was a “trigger” that would enact $1.2 trillion in cuts to both defense and non-defense spending in 2013 in the event that a special bipartisan “supercommittee” is unable to reach agreement on a debt-reduction plan by Nov. 23.

The thinking behind the “trigger” was that it contained something anathema to both parties: Democrats would be loath to allow deeper cuts to non-defense spending, while Republicans would work to avoid further cuts to the Pentagon budget.

Democrats at the time described the trigger as a way to pressure Republicans to agree to a debt-reduction compromise that would include both spending cuts and tax increases.

But in the three months since President Obama signed the debt-ceiling deal into law, it’s been mostly Republicans, not Democrats, who have raised the issue of the potential defense cuts in the debate over tackling the country’s debt.

Several top Republicans, including Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.), have pledged to work against allowing the defense cuts to go into effect in 2013 should the supercommittee fail. And as recently as Wednesday morning, the House Armed Services Committee was holding the latest of several hearings examining the impact the Pentagon cuts would have on jobs and the economy.

On the Democratic side, however, there has been little attempt by the White House or congressional leaders to frame the debt debate as a choice between revenue increases and defense cuts. Nor have Democrats seized on warnings by some GOP defense hawks that defense cuts will cost the country as many as 1 million jobs — a claim that conflict with GOP leaders’ message that government spending does not create jobs.

Aside from Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, few rank-and-file lawmakers have been vocal in bringing up the defense cuts issue.

As our colleague Allen McDuffee reports, Smith argued at a speech at the American Enterprise Institute last week that if supercommittee Republicans don’t agree to tax increases in a final debt-reduction package, “defense is going to be crucified.”

Asked in a brief interview Tuesday whether he believed his party has done an effective job of getting its message across during the debt debate, Smith responded, “I don’t.”

“I think we should be doing that more aggressively and more often,” Smith said of casting the decision facing the supercommittee as a choice between defense cuts and revenue increases. “I do think that we should be making that case. ... Let me just say that if we don’t put revenue on the table, you’re going to have to cut the budget. Defense is 20 percent of the budget. Do the math.”

As the supercommittee nears its Thanksgiving deadline, some liberal Democrats argue that the focus on debt-reduction is misguided and that the current focus should be solely on jobs.

“I think this is yesterday’s conversation, frankly, the whole issue of the obsession with cuts and debt reduction,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) told reporters Tuesday. “I think the president and the Congress, or at least the Democrats, have refocused on jobs. That is the concern, the number one concern of the American people. So, in some ways, we’re kind of left with this structure that is singularly focused on debt reduction, and of course revenue is still being resisted by the Republicans.”

Even so, the debt debate still looms as large as ever three months after the debt-ceiling deal, and the leaders of previous deficit-reduction commissions issued dire warnings to the supercommittee at its hearing Tuesday that it must act now and act big — or face the consequences.

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